Quetta Bombing: Judgement Day
On Monday, August 8, 70 people were killed in a suicide bombing at Quetta’s Civil Hospital, and many wounded. In the days following, the death toll rose to 74. Among the dead, 54 were lawyers. According to news reports, 120 were injured.
The incident occurred when nearly 200 people — most of them from the legal fraternity — gathered to mourn the targeted killing of Bilal Anwar Kasi, the Balochistan Bar Association president, earlier the same morning.
In separate messages issued by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA), the Pakistan faction of the Taliban, and Islamic State (IS), both claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Within an hour of the news of the attack, Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri pointed a finger at India. “The Indian intelligence agency RAW is involved in subversive and terrorist activities in Balochistan,” he told the media. “A war has been waged against terrorists in the province and militants have started attacking those who are soft targets.”
In a statement issued later the same day, the members of the country’s civilian and military leadership stated the bombing was an attack on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Army chief General Raheel Sharif, meanwhile, maintained it was an attempt to sabotage the gains of the military operation, Zarb-e-Azb.
Imran Baloch, a young lawyer, was on the spot in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. He narrates what transpired:
“The High Court Bar elections were scheduled for August 13. I was in (former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association) Kamran Murtaza Baloch sahib’s chamber because we had earlier planned to leave for Chaman for the election campaign, but he wasn’t feeling well, so we had to postpone the trip. Since I was in civilian clothes, Kamran sahib asked me to go home and change into office attire, after which he said we would to go to the district courts. As soon as I left his chambers I got a call about the Quetta bombing, and I rushed with a few colleagues to the site.”
Imran Baloch continues, “We took the injured to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) where I stayed till 6 pm. We were then provided a C130, and along with Kamran Murtaza sahib and a fellow advocate, Ata Ullah, we flew out with 27 of our injured colleagues to Karachi, where they were taken to the Aga Khan Hospital. The next day 15 more of our colleagues were shifted to the Aga Khan Hospital. We remained in Karachi with our colleagues for 12 days.”
Bilal Kasi’s killing was the third assassination of a lawyer in Balochistan in two months. Balochistan Law College principal, Barrister Amanullah Achakzai, was shot dead by unknown assailants on Spini Road, Quetta, in June. Advocate Jahanzeb Alvi was shot on Quetta’s Brewery Road five days before the attack at the hospital, with Advocate Kasi taking up Advocate Alvi’s case himself. And then Kasi was brought down.
Kamran Baloch suggests that the perpetrators of the attack had been setting up the carnage for a while.
“There had been a sequential targeting of lawyers prior to Bilal Kasi’s murder. When Barrister Achakzai was killed, the lawyers couldn’t gather because the dead body was taken home. The same was true when Advocate Alvi was killed. And so the Balochistan Bar Association President was targeted this time to ensure that all the lawyers came together. Kasi was killed around 8:45 in the morning. This is the time when the advocates reach court. The courts are at a five-minute walking distance from Civil Hospital and since there was a lot of activity going on among the lawyers because of the High Court Bar elections, everyone was already within proximity of the hospital. It was all pre-planned,” he says.
Imran Baloch continues, “I was at home when I was informed about the first incident. I was two minutes away from Civil Hospital, near the Commissioner’s Office, when the second attack took place. It was so close I could feel the blast. My junior rang me just moments later telling me not to proceed further.”
The young lawyer says he has no doubt that the attack was deliberately planned to target the lawyers’ community, “and kill as many of them as possible.”
He adds, “What further substantiates this is the presence at the kutchery that day of unidentified people in civilian clothes, who kept shouting, ‘Bilal Kasi has been murdered, lawyers let’s go to Civil Hospital immediately!’ This was within five minutes of the attack on Kasi sahib. Who were these people? How did they find out about the Kasi killing before us? They weren’t lawyers.”
And in the days following the carnage, different political parties expressed their reservations about each others’ reactions to the event. The Balochistan National Party spokesperson, Agha Hassan Baloch, for example, vehemently condemned Chief Minister Zehri’s statement in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
“To jump to conclusions before any investigations were conducted is a clear sign of trying to rid oneself of responsibility, and to shroud one’s failures. What should have happened instead was to share the findings of the investigations once they had been completed, and then call out RAW or whoever was behind the attack,” he said.
Agha Baloch continued, “It’s an unfathomable tragedy. A generation of lawyers has been eliminated in this attack. These include Baloch, Pashtuns and Punjabis. The void left by the death of these lawyers won’t be filled for the next 40-50 years. And the already sorry state of education in Balochistan won’t help fill the vacuum.”
The BNP spokesman also pointed out that because the security forces haven’t got their act together, “it’s been weeks since the attack and we’re yet to see any tangible results from the investigation, let alone any proper strategy to counter such attacks in the future. The BNP believes we need policies in the province that would ensure no foreign country would be able to meddle inside Balochistan. That can only be possible if we address the grievances of the locals.”
He added: “There is no denying that the CPEC is a huge project, for everyone concerned. Our party has organised conferences and seminars to highlight this. Obviously the bigger the project, the more it will be a target of conspiracies and antagonism. And so it is important for the powers-that-be to address Baloch concerns over the CPEC. We have no issues over the western route; our actual concern is the future of the Baloch in Gwadar. Once their issues are resolved, there is absolutely no one that can dent the CPEC.”
The question is, if it was the CPEC under attack, why were lawyers targeted?
“There are two, three possibilities. Of course, we don’t have any evidence, but one can always deduce,” says Kamran Baloch. “The aim could either have been to damage a state pillar, or to make a point — remember it is the educated section of society in Balochistan that has been targeted.”
Agha Baloch says that while the void of those that have left will never be filled, there are still many competent lawyers in Balochistan. “We still have many senior lawyers in the province right now, from all ethnicities and backgrounds. There are around 3,500 lawyers in Balochistan, of which around 800 are High Court lawyers. Around 101 lawyers were injured in the recent Quetta blast, but we still have lawyers who can fight human rights and missing persons cases, and file constitution petitions as well.”
Kamran Baloch however, disagrees. He says the courtrooms in Balochistan are completely empty. “Not a single case has proceeded anywhere in the province since the Quetta bombing,” he states. “We’re still unsure of how the legal proceedings will resume in our courts and how we will manage the situation considering the damage done,” he states. Others of his fraternity concur with his assessment, citing fear alongside uncertainty. “Now we are always looking over our shoulder,” says one lawyer. “It is an unnerving way to live and work.”
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.